|Painting for Glory: Malcolm Morley on the World War II Origins of His High-Flying Art
1 April 2011
"Often times people say, 'What do you paint?' and I say, 'Adventure paintings,' and that ends it," Malcolm Morley explains with a playful smile. One of the pioneers of Photorealism (also known as Superrealism), Morely, 79, grew up in London and came to New York City in the mid-'60s and made a name for himself painting highly realistic images typically based off photographs or postcards, often adding self-referential marks to recast the source image in a more political or social light one of the most famous examples of this being his "Racetrack" from 1970. A multifaceted painter, Morley's style became more expressionistic for a time, but in the '90s Morley returned to his realist roots. A longtime enthusiast of planes and ships, these machines frequently find their way into Morley's work, and such is the case again with his most recent solo show at Sperone Westwater, titled "Rules of Engagement" and running through April 30, in which 12 new works portray classic fighter planes and the men who piloted them.
Your style has been so diverse over time. I'm interested in how your artistic progression evolved.
The word itself, style, is interesting. It roots from stylus, the tool used for carving, and essentially you could only tell the differences between one carver and another by the mistakes they made. So if you've made a perfect "O," it was without style. So, I think that language has got pretty sloppy, and Im very keen to get it into another context. Does God have style? Although, I do understand how it's used today it's really a mode of recognition, and you bring out this idea of these shifts and changes. It seems like that to me too, but what's odd about it is that although there seems to be a very abrupt gap between one thing and another at the time, when you see them all together in a retrospective they flow it's a strange phenomenon. I seem to be more circular than linear. Like the metaphor of throwing a huge stone at the middle of a pond the velocity of the throw, and scale of the stone, which I feel is kind of pain-based. So the evolution is more circular than linear.
How did you get your start?
It's funny, you know, because in the beginning well my very first show in New York was at a gallery called Jill Kornblee which is a very historic gallery and they were abstract paintings. I was very taken by Cy Twombly and it was sort of my own version of abstract expressionism. They tended to have the feeling of the superstructure of ships, cruise ships, these sort of bands and things. But I always felt this wasn't really me. Whatever that is, the changing me. And I was taken over to visit to Richard Artschwager, and he was working with grids and that reminded me very much of the sort of thing I did at art school, which was on grids. Although at that time I hadn't seen that the grid was simply a means of getting the drawing, and then that's the end of the grid. So I actually went down to the 57th Street Pier and there was a liner they called them liners then and attempted to make a painting of it, which was impossible, you know? One end of the ship was down there and the other end was over here. So I got a post card of it, and made a painting of that, on a grid. And that was the first beginnings of what, very unkindly, was called Photorealism.
Lawrence Alloway's wife, whose name was Sylvia Sleigh, came from a sort of very upper-class English background, and when she saw them, she coined it Photorealism. Basically it was based almost on the idea that the upper class believed that the man in the street's appreciation of art is a painting that looks as close to a photograph is possible. And it was meant as a put down.
Yet it seems like this style of painting would require an immense amount of effort and time.
Is there a term you prefer to Photorealism?
I always go toward Superrealism. Not that I thought it was super, but I wanted to associate it with Suprematism. Because my interest was on a much bigger issue than so called "copying," and I would always cringe when "copying" would come up because I always thought of it as an interpretation, of translating the thing into a painterly invention, you know, and so forth. What's really interesting about it is that the very first paintings were these spectacular meticulous looking liners, cruise ships and stuff. When I was a boy I used to build models, and one night we were blown up by WWII we had been blown up by what was called a V1, that was a jet-propelled bomb. And I'd been building this model battleship out of balsa wood, and the turrets turned and the lifeboats came down, quite spectacular. The idea was to paint them and photograph them. And then you couldn't tell the difference. I was going to start painting it the next day, but after the bomb the wall completely disappeared and so did the boat just completely disappeared. And we lived on top of a shoe shop. And the whole street was littered with shoes very surreal. And smoke. And I had really not made a connection, but through psychoanalysis, it came up: that really I was trying to paint that original boat.
And how old were you at that time when the bomb hit?
About 12. And nobody ever mentioned it when it happened. It just disappeared. We were sort of refugees staying in other people's houses and stuff. Anyway so that was the end of my modeling career then. So I was rather thrilled to make the link why I would go through it. Because it's quite an ordeal to paint them. It's because of the end result that I'm willing to do it. You know and a strange phenomenon would occur that I call the stereoscopic space it would appear through just painting these flat tones against each other and yet illusionistically I suppose going through your central nervous system. You have this illusion of space, and of course there is no space in painting. Mathematicians would call it an area. You know in the '60s all you heard was space in paintings. Anyway that's something else. So then, Ivan Karp, he was a very prominent in introducing Pop Art and so forth, he was a very, very close friend, and he went all over America with these slides to various art departments and at the end of the year there were 100 people doing it. And I really claim to be the originator of what was known then as Photorealism. Although there were others who were also doing something parallel to that at the same time like Richard Estes. There were three of us you know. But so, you know, one would specialize in dinners, another one would do racehorses, and you know.
Tell me about the origin of Race Track.
The painting of the racetrack was really the jump. It's an interesting story. I'd gone with, actually, Toni Shafrazi, a very close pal, to see a movie called "Z." Yves Montand plays a Greek politician in the time of the colonels in Greece, and he get assassinated. And in the meantime I had finished the racetrack. And Ivan Karp had arranged for Time magazine to come and photograph it on Monday. That was Friday. So Tony and I were so pissed when we came out of the movie you come out mad and so I got this idea of putting an X on the racetrack. And instead of just taking some paint and poom-poom, making an X, we got sheets of plastic and put them on the painting and rehearsed the X, and it got thinner and thinner. Because the painter didn't really want to totally destroy the painting, you know. So it was really quite a thin X. And then we reversed the plastic, printing the X on the painting. And low and behold it was Malcolm's X on a racetrack in South Africa. And because that was a pun that came out afterward, which sadly Lawrence Alloway claimed as his own discovery but anyway, writers do this. So that was the beginning of the end. Not only was I exing out racetrack, but I was exing out Photorealism at the same time. And I'm a tremendous believer in the unconscious as an activity and have been devoted to psychoanalysis for most of my life. And although I think that neurotic art is interesting, I think conscious art is much more interesting. And so, you know, psychoanalysis is a way of making friends with your unconscious life and so it becomes one thing rather than a divided thing. People always think of us as icebergs with very little showing on top and a lot underneath.
How did the critics receive your work?
You know, actually I think there were one or two critics who were like, "This Morley guy, he's not so realist, when you look at them close they're really quite ugly." Now you take Ralph Goings, you know smooth airbrush. And so I was always involved with the idea of painting, to put in a nutshell, really in a classic tradition. But at the same time wanting to do something new. Actually, you paint whether or not it occurs to sit in the pantheons of the greats for glory, you know. I mean, it's nice to go to the back, but that's not the end of it, you know? So I got that part of it straight. And so really I never left well, once or twice I left the grid but really I couldn't find a better way to organize it. And actually the grid is quite democratic because you're treating the background and the foreground the same. They are equal. And that's the paradox of this illusionistic space thing that occurs. Its a mystery to me really. It's very digital. If you're trying to paint a figure in space, a sort of corniness starts to occur, I suppose. And so then I could paint them up. Theres no right way out for them, in terms of a small square. For a long time I didn't cut up the square, so I was always losing my place. This way I could just run around all day thinking about a quarter tone against a half a tone. And nothing else. I got rid of the burden of carrying the whole around simultaneously. So that in a nutshell is it.
So tell me about your new paintings. I understand youve been meditating on this idea of the hero.
That started some time ago. I had come across this book Rothko had written. It was a notebook, and he wrote it before he was Rothko essentially, and I was quite taken with it. He was talking about all those guys like Barnett Newman who were all involved with mythology, and myths need a hero and a hero needs to face danger, et cetera. And that appealed to me because I feel the modern painter faces danger if he's looking at the whole picture, and I started thinking, "Who is the modern hero?" And I went down to the deli one day and there were two guys talking about a baseball game that had been played years earlier, and they remembered every detail of it. I thought, it's the sportsman that is the hero that takes the risk. So that's what got me into the that series of paintings. I did an ice hockey guy and I did Souza, the baseball player, you know, things like that. And so that's how that happened. It's as if I'm always looking for a bigger subject you know?
Tell me about your new body of work.
So these new paintings came about because I was doing a show in Belgium a year and a half ago or so, and as I was leaving a young painter gave me a small pamphlet sort of thing. And there were illustrations of these fighter pilots from WWI and WWII, and I was very taken by them when I saw them I knew that was it. That's such a great feeling when you get that. And it was so tied up with my earlier life, you know, completely. So I started out doing it with a tremendous belief, a stronger belief than I had had earlier. All the pilots are different nationalities. The jet propelled bomb I spoke of earlier, the tail of it came in my bedroom. And there was a swastika and a number stenciled on it. And the metal was hot. Now, I'm not a Nazi, but in painting the German pilot I painted these swastikas, so this idea of painting on the word classified came into my mind as a means of distance. I did that and I liked it so much, just the plastic visual look of it that I put it up on all the pilots. It also makes for another level. Because the word classified stands between you and that. It turns it into something that could be a document, it's hovering over all of those levels. And I like to say that some people buy paintings, collect paintings, that are pictures, and some people buy paintings because they're paintings. And some people buy paintings because they're pictures and paintings. So it's a kind of a test, this word classified.
And this continues the exploration of the hero concept?
Yes it does. The titles of them have the nationality, like "The Italian Pilot" (ACE), so they're all aces. They're oil paint on canvas, not oil paint on oil paint. When you build up too much paint on paint it becomes dull. So this is wet on wet it's all close to the canvas. You know, throughout my work the color in my work has never been discussed. It's like the imagery takes over more strongly. And yet they are colored pigment on canvas. That's essentially what they are.
What are your work habits like?
I've got a routine. I'm not so good in the mornings I putter around and it's as if I take a hundred-yard warm-up to dash ten yards. I usually start midday and carry on until dinner., and very often go back after dinner and work until about 10. It's a seven day a week thing for me. It's harder for me not to work. With these, conviction drove it. Painting was always problematic. But I never had any doubt about these.
You were mentioning this idea earlier about a stone being cast into the water and rings circularly going out. And mentioned that the velocity with which the stone is thrown is determined by pain. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
It happened to be a very painful early life. So this idea of throwing the rock... or another idea is that of the oyster. The size of the pearl is determined by the size of the grit. The irritation. The greater the irritation, the greater the pearl, supposedly. It's a metaphor anyway. And I was very fortunate really because I was taken up by people and ended up going to the Royal College of Art. And I didn't have the scholastics. Actually that was part and parcel of what was known as the angry young man syndrome during the time of "Look Back in Anger." The root of that was that after WWII men were coming back from the battle field and, just based on their merit, were getting into Oxford or Cambridge with Cockney accents. And the upper classes would not accept them. Still won't, you know. So there was this kind of resentment. John Osborne the playwright wrote his famous play "Look Back in Anger." The president of the Royal College was a very enlightened guy. All I wanted to do was join in I wasn't really rebellious. I wanted to belong. And the great thing about New York was that I was always sort of accepted by other artists. And, so, I turned that into my family really. So I got away from that whole English class thing. I moved out from painting sort of from the point of view of reaction into a point of view of action. Which has a lot more to do with loving. And it's a stronger quality, the acting. And so I'm a very happy man.
- James Chad Hanna